Early detection of breast cancer increases survival odds

HANCOCK – Whether through self-examination or an annual mammogram, early detection greatly increases the chance of survival from breast cancer.

One in eight women are expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point during their life. Next to skin cancer, it’s the most common among women. If unchecked, it can be lethal, although death is becoming rarer in America. An estimated 39,620 women will die from breast cancer this year, down 34 percent from 1990, according to a new American Cancer Society study.

According to ACS guidelines, women should start getting annual mammograms once they turn 40. Another important tool is the self-exam. Women should check themselves monthly for any signs of a problem, including new lumps, skin changes or discharge from the nipples, said Lloyd Geddes, medical oncologist at Portage Health.

“That’s really a matter of them getting used to their body and being able to pick up differences, because oftentimes they may be the one to notice something different and they can bring it to the attention of their doctors,” he said.

Inherited characteristics can increase risk, such as mutations in the BRCA or BRCA2 genes, Geddes said. Mutations can prevent those genes from fully repairing damage to cells. Higher exposure to estrogen can also lead to a greater chance of breast cancer.

Also vulnerable are women who reach puberty early, have menopause later, or who have children at a later age, Geddes said.

Regular physical activity can lower the risk of breast cancer by up to 20 percent. Obesity, smoking and drinking can increase the likelihood, according to the ACS.

Treating breast cancer usually involves a combination or local and systemic treatments, depending on the characteristics of the cancer. Local treatment include radical mastectomy, in which the breast is removed, or a lumpectomy, where they excise around the tumor and remove it with a margin of normal tissue, followed by radiation treatment. After the tissue is sent to the pathologist, the tumor’s examined under the microscope to look at aggressiveness, estrogen and progesterone receptors, and other factors.

It would be great to have a blanket diagnosis and treatment for everyone, but that’s not possible, Geddes said. The likelihood of recurrence varies depending on the natural history of the tumor and its pathologic characteristics. However, treatments such as chemotherapy, hormonal therapy or biotherapy can be tailored to the person to minimize the chance of the cancer coming back.

“One of the benefits of modern medicine now is we’re able to look at tumor biology and very specifically tailor an individual’s treatment for that individual,” he said.

Geddes emphasized the importance of checking for breast cancer. The earlier the detection, the less-developed a tumor is likely to be.

“Screening is really the key to diagnosing the cancer early,” he said.

Portage Health is offering a free gift this month to patients who schedule a mammogram appointment in October in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. To schedule an appointment, they call the Portage Health Women’s Health Team at 483-1050, or contact their family practice physician.